Freedom of speech? Its a thorny topic. Do people have the right to be hateful, misinformed, even misogynist? Does free speech include allowing emotional and psychologies bullies, like Rush Limbaugh, to use the airwaves for name calling? In the United States it is free speech uber alles, but other countries have different perspectives. In Canada you can’t engage in hate speech, just like you can’t punch people in the face. Whatever your position, however you think about it, Rush certainly is a magnet for controversy.
Freedom of speech is sacrosanct. Everyone should have the right to say whatever they want. Also, it is arguably more important to protect free speech for those ideas that we dislike than it is for those that we admire. To paraphrase Voltaire, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” If we only protect free speech rights for those with whom we agree, then we aren’t really protecting free speech. Instead, we’re advocating a diabolical form of intellectual tyranny, i.e., it’s my way or the highway.
That said, it is also important to acknowledge that those who exercise the right to free speech must also take responsibility for their statements. While speakers may have an iron-clad right to be controversial, nevertheless, those speakers also need to appreciate that they are not speaking into a vacuum. Free speech does not require listeners to uncritically accept any idea that a speaker wishes to propagate. Quite the reverse. In an environment where free speech prevails, audiences have as much right to respond as speakers have to pontificate. Thus, free-speakers beware. Free speech is not a right to be taken lightly; it is a fundamental right that is freighted with responsibility, and reckless speakers often find that there are consequences aplenty for those who speak freely and foolishly.
Enter Rush Limbaugh.
What was the man thinking? Or, more to the point, was the man thinking? Regardless, Rush is now acquainted with the fact, as never before, that there are consequences for speaking freely and foolishly.
Rush Limbaugh has made a career out of being a polemicist. Indeed, over the past couple of decades, Limbaugh has managed to build up the largest radio audience in the US by lashing out angrily at the people, politics and cultural events that do not comply with his right-wing worldview. Until now, Rush’s fan base has had a seemingly insatiable appetite for his fevered denunciations of favored targets, such as: Democrats, self-defining women, rights activists, college professors, etc. The more abusive that Rush’s rhetoric has become, the more exultant his listeners have been with his broadcasts. Indeed, Rush’s angry little universe ran as smoothly as clockwork until Rush decided to vent his spleen on Sandra Fluke.
On February 23, 2012, Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, testified before a US House of Representatives committee on the topic of birth control. The gist of Fluke’s testimony was that women’s birth control treatments should be covered under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Some groups, such as the US Catholic Church, have sought permission to opt out of providing birth control because of their doctrinal opposition to birth control. However, Sandra Fluke contended that, having arrived in the 21st century, birth control should be viewed as a basic form of healthcare that is as essential to women as Rush Limbaugh’s Viagra pills are to him.
In response to Fluke’s testimony, Limbaugh launched a now infamous tirade during which Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute. Limbaugh’s justification for these insults was that by exhorting the federal government to include coverage for birth control under the Affordable Care Act, Fluke was “asking the government to pay her for having sex.”
Apart from the fact that Limbaugh’s comments displayed an appalling ignorance of Sandra Fluke’s testimony, as well as a basic misunderstanding of what birth control is and how it is used, Limbaugh also catastrophically misjudged how his comments would be perceived. In the past, Rush regularly hurled abuse at well-spoken, politically-savvy, intelligent women—people whom Limbaugh would often describe as “femi-nazis”—with impunity. However, Limbaugh’s denunciation of Sandra Fluke finally crossed an invisible line that unforgivably alienated Limbaugh from his supporters. Lots of folks who had stood behind Rush Limbaugh and cheered him on as he slandered a myriad of left-leaning causes and characters summarily abandoned Limbaugh in the wake of his indictment of Sandra Fluke.
Why the sudden change?
Perhaps it was due to the harshness of the terminology that Limbaugh used to excoriate Sandra Fluke that he ran afoul of his supporters. Truly, it is difficult to find humor in the profoundly stigmatizing labels that Limbaugh sought to apply to Sandra Fluke. Or, perhaps it was widespread revulsion over Limbaugh’s suggestion that women who obtain government-supported birth control should be required to video record their sexual liaisons and post them on the Internet. Who besides a sick-minded voyeur would even dare to propose such a perverted idea in public—much less to a nationwide audience of morally-indignant right-wing Bible-thumpers.
What was the man thinking?
But I think Limbaugh’s most significant miscalculation was his failure to realize that many of his listeners (male and female alike) were themselves users of birth control and, consequently, they could not help but interpret Limbaugh’s vilification of Sandra Fluke as a personal attack upon themselves and their loved ones. Obviously, this would be news to Rush Limbaugh, but in post-industrial societies like the US, just about everyone, regardless of political affiliation, uses birth control. In recent decades, birth control has made it possible for women to begin completing college degrees at a rate that exceeds their male counterparts. Further, birth control has also made it possible for women to embark on, and persist in career trajectories that have enabled women to accumulate enormous affluence and political influence. Thus, in lashing out at Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh was also heaping condemnation on the largest and, increasingly, the most socially, politically, culturally, and economically powerful bloc of people in the world: upwardly-mobile women. Apparently, Limbaugh didn’t get the memo, but there’s a new world order in the 21st century. More women are closer to the apex of power than ever.
Being the king of his own little universe, Rush Limbaugh failed to appreciate the sleeping giant that he was awakening via his denunciations of Sandra Fluke. Apparently, Limbaugh thought that his media empire was sufficiently powerful to outmaneuver the vast and fast-growing demographic that he has repeatedly and blithely degraded as “femi-nazis.” Now that practically all of Limbaugh’s advertisers have fled from his program in a sudden and mass exodus, I think it is fair to say that the competition between Rush Limbaugh and empowered 21st century women is decidedly one-sided. Women have accumulated sufficient power to swat Rush Limbaugh like the annoying little gnat that he has become.
That said, I, for one, do not wish to see Rush Limbaugh driven off the airwaves. Limbaugh should retain the right to continue speaking freely and foolishly to any audience that cares to tune in to such a bigoted, near-sighted lummox. Having chosen his battle and lost—resoundingly!—I think Rush Limbaugh should continue prattling away from now until kingdom come on the airwaves. His diminishing influence should serve as an example to all of the enormous virtues and perilous pitfalls of free speech.
Rush has no one to blame for his downfall but himself.
About the Author: Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.